A small soft hand reaches out the back-seat window and plays with the turbulent wind created by the speed of the moving vehicle. The hand surfs up and down with the changing direction of wind as the car weaves through lanes of the highway. As the car decelerates, the hand plummets to the rubbery rim at the base of the car window. The frustrated buzz of the motors grows louder as the cars come to a dead stop.
Without the incoming breeze of the open window, the car interior begins to heat up, and with it, its passengers begin to perspire. To alleviate the combustible angst and impatience in the air, the man in the front seat turns on the radio. As the radio scratches into audible voices, the car fills with the banter of the two comedic car mechanics from NPR’s Car Talk. The little girl in the backseat kicks up her legs onto the rest of the unoccupied seats as she maintains her steady gaze looking outside the tinted windows at the slowly rolling traffic.
Such is a glimpse of one of my many memories of waiting in the infamous Los Angeles traffic. Although most people have a strong antipathy for the LA traffic jams, I often greet them with a nostalgic tranquility.
When I first moved up to Berkeley I left my car in LA. Since then I’ve realized how much of my identity is wrapped up in the car culture of Los Angeles. Whether it be driving home from an exhausting water polo practice or to my cousin’s house for our weekend sleepovers; to the live midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the Nuart Theatre every Saturday or to the Venice farmers market the next morning; to the beach at 9 a.m. for a picnic or at 9 p.m. to skinny-dip in the misty cool water on a hot summer night — the car was an omnipresent figure throughout my childhood. Just like a friendship that is fostered by endless hours spent together, my car became an emotional vehicle as much as it was a physical one.
In one way I was liberated when I came to the Bay Area car-less, becoming more pedestrian and exploring the city at 3 miles per hour. But in another I was deprived of my mechanic, metal safety blanket. Maybe I felt that walking was too slow for me because I have more often watched life pass me by at a car speed or maybe my hurry was due to the steadfastness by which I live my life at Berkeley. Whichever the case, I would not describe walking in Berkeley as an acutely calming experience. There are always pedestrians jaywalking, acquaintances stopping for a Larry David stop-and-chat, or people flyering to get your attention or sign a petition. It is more likely that you will find me running with my jangling backpack and clapping sandals on the way to class, work or a show than you will find me meandering the streets on a walk at sunset. Because of this, I would describe myself as a pedestrian with road rage and a driver with zen.
In high school I would keep my work and playtime activities separate. I hung out with my friends at school and around the town, and I relaxed and saved my schoolwork for home. In college, however, this divide has muddied as I live at school and am roommates with my friends. Cars, alternatively, are a uniquely transient space. Driving forces you to move with the speed of traffic rather than follow your own agenda. Of course, there are drivers who are distracted during their drives or try to beat inevitable traffic with lane weaving, but safe and mindful driving is a much different sport. For me, it is a meditation game. Entering the car physically drives me away from the thoughts, associations and feelings attached with the place I am departing from. Driving in a car offers a uniquely secluded and quiet space. You can choose to be alone, jam out to your loudest tunes, and drive wherever you want without the disruption of casual sidewalk interactions. It is a place where I can become an autopilot and subconsciously sail to my destination.
This summer, as I came back up to Berkeley, my red Prius came with me. Now as I watch the streets of Berkeley pass me by through the tinted windows of my car, I am taken back to those comforts and precious faded memories of car rides in my home city. Although I may have new people always floating into and out of my life, moving into new apartments and new homes, going to new jobs and leaving old ones behind, my car is still the same in-between. It was just as much of a formative place as any other room in the house; a room between rooms. As much as I grew into my small soft hands soaring in the car window, so too did I grow with my car.
Layla Chamberlin writes the Friday column on how routines create character and delineate personal politics